Why Are the Bush Tax Cuts Expiring?

May 26, 2010

Why are the Bush tax cuts, which were passed primarily in 2001 and 2003, expiring at the end of this tax year? In other words, why weren't they made permanent?

During the legislative fight over tax cuts in 2001, Senate Republicans could not predict with certainty that they would reach the 60-vote threshold of support that would have enabled them to make the tax cuts permanent. As a result, when Congress passed the first of many tax cuts during the last decade in May 2001, it passed it as a reconciliation bill which needs only 51 votes. That was the so-called Bush tax cut, formally known as the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (EGTRRA, pronounced egg-tray).

Reconciliation was devised in 1974 as a way to for the Senate to deal more effectively with budget bills, but it soon became a technique to limit amendments and debate. In 1985, the Senate added the so-called Byrd rule to reconciliation. Named after Senator Robert Byrd, the rule forbids a bill passed under reconciliation from, among other things, altering federal revenue for more than 10 years. Any senator may object that a provision violates that stricture, and if the presiding officer agrees, a vote of 60 senators is required to overturn the ruling.

In 1999, the Senate for the first time used reconciliation to pass legislation that would increase deficits: the Taxpayer Refund and Relief Act 1999. The budget was in surplus at the time, but it was still controversial. In any case, President Clinton vetoed the bill. A year later the Senate again used reconciliation to pass the Marriage Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2000, which President Clinton also vetoed.

Overall, 62 senators supported H.R. 1836 as amended by the Senate, thereby sending it to conference. In the end, 58 senators voted in favor of the conference report.  Nevertheless, because the bill was passed under reconciliation, revenues further than 10 years in the future could not be changed. And so, on December 31, 2010, all of EGTRRA was set to expire and revert to 2001 law.

The 2003 tax cuts mostly accelerated the original tax cuts, but also put in place new tax cuts for dividends and capital gains. The 2003 tax cut, known as the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 (JGTRRA) was also passed under reconciliation.

Throughout 2010, Congress attempted and failed to come to an agreement over the permanent fate of the Bush tax cuts. They were extended temporarily for another two years, and will expire at the end of 2012.

Tallies of how members of Congress voted on the final versions of each of the two major tax cuts (2001 and 2003):

Legislation (text, timeline, etc.) of the two major tax cuts:

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